Sunday, August 19, 2012

Vouching for Bobby Jindal

The education establishments wants him recalled, even as education reforms are felt far beyond Louisiana.

While the national media has focused most of its attention on the school voucher program Gov. Bobby Jindal has implemented in Louisiana, it is just one small part of a larger set of reforms that could reverberate across state lines.

By empowering students, parents and local school officials with greater autonomy and decision-making authority, Gov. Jindal has put himself at odds with his state's education establishment, which has instigated a recall effort and a slew of lawsuits aimed at scuttling the reforms.

Under state law, the recall effort would need about 957,000 certified signatures pulled from the 2.87 million registered voters, according to the Louisiana secretary of state's office. Since Jindal was re-elected with 66 percent of the voter this past October, and maintains high approval ratings, it is fair to say the recall effort faces an uphill climb.

"It's going to be virtually impossible to get the number of signatures required for a recall," Brigitte Nieland, vice-president and communications director of the Education and Workforce Development Council for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), said. "I think this is dead in the water. It's really just a lot of posturing."

In addition to Jindal, the recall effort also targets House Speaker Chuck Kleckley and Reps. Greg Cromer, Ray Garofalo and Kevin Pearson, all Republicans, who backed the education reform package. Jason Doré, the state GOP executive director, is leading a freedom of information act request to see exactly how many signatures have been gathered.

"Recalling the individual lawmakers is a more realistic goal, but even here they are having trouble," Nieland said. "Education reform is moving ahead in Louisiana and it won't be stopped. The recall effort and the lawsuits come from a coalition that is part of the past."

Rick Hess, the director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), is particularly keen on idea of shifting personnel decisions away from school boards to superintendents and principals. This change to school governance, which is now operative in Louisiana thanks to Gov. Jindal, is worth considering in other parts of the country, Hess suggested.

""The whole point of a school board is to provide direction and oversight," he said. "But what we see too often is a kind of intrusive micromanaging that does not fit anyone's idea of good government and good management. It means the boards are not doing their job well, and they are not allowing the superintendents and principals to do their jobs well either."

Gov. Jindal also signed off  on legislation that enables voters to limit school board members to three consecutive four-year terms. Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), is not certain term limits will achieve the desired effect. He sees an advantage in having experienced school board members.

"Having an institutional memory on the school board can be important," he observed. "Each district faces unique challenges, each district has its history and there is something to be said for having people on the board who have the knowledge and experience."

Rep. Stephen Pugh, the Republican who sponsored the term limits bill, places greater weight on "fresh ideas" than he does on experience.

"When you look at where our state is ranked and my parish is ranked in terms of education, it's clear that we need a new approach," he said. "School board members exert influence over important policy matters like curriculum and we need fresh ideas. That's why I like the idea of term limits."

In 2011, Louisiana was ranked 48th out of all 50 states for K-12 student achievement. Statistics also show that one-third of the state's students are performing below grade level. Louisiana ranks last in the number of fourth graders who read proficiently and it also has the highest drop-out rate in the country.

In light of these disconcerting figures, Camille Conaway, a public policy researcher with Blueprint Louisiana, based in Baton Rouge, was supremely disappointed to see the teachers unions offer up legislation that would essentially restore the status quo. One bill would have reinstated permissive tenure policies, while the other would enable school boards to have the final say over personnel matters, she explained.

The union-backed proposal on school governance, for instance, would "re-establish a lengthy and bureaucratic process not only for teacher discharge but even for discipline matters," Conaway said. Rather than empowering local officials, the union plan "would remove personnel decision making from the superintendent and return Louisiana to a political process led by school board members, and restore tenure as we know it," she added.

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